Mount Shasta is the dominant landmark in north central California and wasn't specifically part of our trip (we didn't hike to the top of it for instance) but we spent several days in view of it so it gets the title spot on this page. One of two towns we based ourselves in was Weed (insert your own joke here) just on the north slopes of the mountain. Shasta is a dormant volcano, a defunct ski area and the inspiration behind quite a lot of subpar paintings.
The northeast corner of California is home to the little visited Lava Beds National Monument. If you're coming from central California we have to recommend the back road to the southwest corner of the park if you don't mind 2-3 hours of dust and forest. Lava Beds is best known for the lava tube caves in the park, many of which can be freely explored. The park rents miner's helmets for the day but if you have your own headlamp you can keep spelunking past 5:00. A typical hiking trail in Lava Beds looks like this. A few feet of pavement and a steep staircase into a lava cave. Golden Dome is one of the more spectacular caves, named after a particular domed room in which subterranean bacteria reflect gold light.
That's Mount Shasta again in the distance. Lava wreckage in the foreground and nearly 100 miles (160 km) of forest in between. Particularly striking in August is the transition from a 50 F (20 C) degree cave with only the light from a headlamp to the blindingly bright California desert with 100 F (38 C) temperatures. If you're playing in the lava caves, you'll also want a jacket, good shoes, good ankles and a reasonably good sense of direction (or maybe breadcrumbs).
The park does include some above ground hiking opportunities. This trail runs through Captain Jack's fortress. Captain Jack was a rebellious Native American leader who confounded US troops by remaining hidden in the lava beds. The 'fortress' is an extremely defensible bit of otherwise nondescript rugged lavascape.
The caves of the park are grouped into beginner, intermediate and expert varieties. A beginner cave, like Ice Cave seen here has a smooth floor, staircases with railings and high ceilings. Ice Cave also has an ice floor although you're not allowed past the beginning of the ice. Expert caves involve crawling, crouching, and the occassional less-than-graceful bit of contortionism. Fortunately we don't have a picture of that.
Burnie Falls. The big composite picture above doesn't even do it justice. It's located near the town of Burnie (our other base city) in an otherwise run of the mill State Park. Porous layers of igneous rock combined with an underwater spring (the spring source is just upstream) lead to this remarkable phenomena. Honestly this is perhaps the most spectacular falls we've been to in the US, and we've been to quite a few (go on search mrfs.net for waterfall, we dare you).
Close up you can see that there are literally hundreds of places where the water seeps out of the cliff face, along with the two major pour-overs. A trail going downstream passes a few more little falls. If you're in the area this is definitely worth a visit.
South of Burnie is the biggest tourist draw in the area, thanks largely to it's (relative) accessibility: Lassen Volcanic Park. Lassen Peak (shown here) erupted spectacularly early in the 20th century.
The National Park is quite large and covers a section of nearby mountains as well although the one major park road traverses only near Lassen Peak. The rest is accessible by foot and horse trail only from a few side roads that just project inside the park boundaries. The views are generally spectacular. This is cold boiling lake, named for a bubbling spring in it.
The park also features two areas of geothermal activity, much like the geyser basins of Yellowstone (but without the geysers). The other major geothermal features; mud pots, fumaroles and hot springs are all found here.
The Sulphur works is located near the south entrance to the park right at the main road but only contains a few features. The highlight is the area known as Bumpass Hell which is about a 45 to 60 minute moderately strenuous hike from the parking area. The name comes from the discoverer (yes, Mr. Bumpass) who later lost a leg falling through the thin crust into a hot spring.
If you get away from the main road in the park there are lots of secluded areas that look ripe for wildlife, but somehow we only saw mule deer, and only in the relatively crowded areas. Oh well.
Bumpass Hell, and several other popular hikes are at very high altitudes. Lake Helen (shown here) is at nearly 9000 ft (2900m). Lassen Peak in the background is a very popular summit hike although it is strenuous and 5 hours are recommended for it.
The geothermal areas are accessible via boardwalk only which is still not reassuring considering a large chunk of the boardwalk had been eaten by a fumarole several months before our visit. If you're descending from Lassen into the central valley town of Chico, make sure you check out the Sierra Nevada brewery there. The brand is well enough known in the US but apparently they horde all their really exciting creations in the brewpub.